PAUL BOGDANOR is an author and researcher based in Britain. His latest book, Kasztner’s Crime, tells the story of how hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were deported to their deaths during the Holocaust while the head of the “rescue operation” in Budapest collaborated with the Nazis.
1.What drew you to writing this book?
In 1944 Hungary was the only Nazi satellite where a large Jewish population was mostly intact and where there was a well-prepared Jewish rescue underground, led by Rezső Kasztner. But when the Nazis occupied the country Hungary’s Jews were deported to Auschwitz in record time and with minimal difficulty. How was this possible? I became fascinated with Kasztner’s conduct during these events, especially his dealings with the SS [the black-uniformed elite corps of the Nazi Party]. My initial impulse was to exonerate Kasztner of charges of collaboration. But the more evidence I uncovered, the more I became convinced that his role was a negative one. I then felt a powerful moral obligation to defend the memory of the Auschwitz survivors who had spoken out against him.
2. How long did you work on this book?
I worked on the book for 10 years. About half of that was spent doing research, and half writing. The subject can sustain a person’s interest for a very long time because it’s about so much more than the rescue efforts during the Holocaust; it also involves Nazi deception operations, World War II intelligence networks, a famous Israeli libel trial, and Israel’s first political assassination.
3. What kind of research do you do, and how much research do you do before you begin writing?
First I read every published source on the subject, then I turn to the archives. For Kasztner’s Crime I used material in the Haganah Archives, the Central Zionist Archives, the Israel State Archives, Yad Vashem [the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem], the National Archives in Britain, NARA [the National Archives and Records Administration] in the United States, and other document collections too numerous to list. I also communicated with Auschwitz survivors and their families. Basically, I gather all the material I can find, then I start writing. Research never really ends—in fact, I’m still collecting evidence even though Kasztner’s Crime has been published.
4. Do you enjoy the craft of writing or do you prefer the research?
I prefer the research. Even if the material has been mined by previous researchers, you often see something new in it. It’s interesting to find that past authors have mischaracterized or omitted crucial aspects of documents. That happened more than once when I was researching Kasztner’s Crime.
5. What books are you reading right now?
Right now I’m reading Esther Farbstein’s two-volume work Hidden in the Heights: Orthodox Jewry in Hungary during the Holocaust. In my spare time I like to learn about other areas of history and politics. I have a collection of books on World War II and the Cold War that I’d like to read, starting with Richard B. Frank’s Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire.
6. What’s next for you? What are you working on?
I haven’t yet started my next book. For a long time I’ve wanted to write a book on apologists for the world’s worst dictatorships. I have a lot of hard-to-find material on that subject and I believe I have something new to say about it. MHQ